Scott Shane was a reporter for 15 years at The New York Times, where he was twice a member of teams that won Pulitzer Prizes, and before that for 21 years at The Baltimore Sun. He was also a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he has taught courses on media and on the Russian attack on the 2016 American presidential election.
Below, Scott shares five key insights from his new book, Flee North: A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery’s Borderland. Listen to the audio version—read by Scott himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Thomas Smallwood is the most important and fascinating African-American activist and writer you’ve never heard of.
While digging through old newspapers, 19th-century books, and archival documents, I had the incredible good luck of discovering the little-known Thomas Smallwood, who quickly became the most important of the three major characters in this story. Smallwood was born into slavery just outside Washington DC in 1801. He bought his own freedom over time and by age 30 he was free and self-educated, working as a shoemaker and raising a family in southeast Washington, near the Navy Yard.
He was burning with indignation about the institution of slavery when he met a younger white abolitionist from New England named Charles Torrey at the beginning of 1842. The two men decided to take direct action. They began helping people escape from Washington, Baltimore, and the surrounding counties—an illegal and highly dangerous operation. Whenever possible, they sent people north, not in ones and twos, but by the wagonload.
Not only did Smallwood organize the escapes, he wrote about them too, in dispatches to an abolitionist newspaper in Albany, New York, which was on their escape route north. These letters, retrieved from a stack of old newspapers in a Boston Public Library warehouse, are an extremely rare real-time account of escapes from slavery, using the real names of both the slaveholders and the people fleeing from them. They’re written in a sometimes scathing, sometimes hilarious style, mocking the enslavers, and celebrating the people escaping. They add up to a remarkable literary achievement, as well as a unique American masterpiece of satire.
2. It was Thomas Smallwood who seized upon the term “Underground Railroad” for escapes from slavery and he was the first to use it in print.
This is a fun story, and it’s also the solution to a 180-year-old mystery, since historians have never before known where the name of the Underground Railroad came from. Here’s what happened. A notorious Baltimore police constable who made much of his income capturing people running from slavery was overheard expressing his mystification that so many people were getting away (many of whom were getting away with Smallwood’s help!). This constable declared that the “damned rascals” must be escaping by “underground railroad or steam balloon,” because he couldn’t find a trace of them. Of course, there were no underground railroads in 1842. He was referring to a nonexistent mode of transportation, the same way we might now say people were teleported to another city or abducted by aliens.
“Eventually the phrase became shorthand for escapes from slavery, especially those with outside help.”
Smallwood loved this idea—it was a backhanded compliment to his escape operation after all—and he began to riff on the idea of an underground railroad that was carrying people out of slavery. In his newspaper dispatches he sarcastically advised slaveholders whose “walking property had walked off,” as he put it, to inquire at the office of the underground railroad in Washington for word of where their enslaved workers might have gone. He appointed himself “general agent of all the branches of the underground railroad.”
My search of the big collections of historical newspapers that are now online showed that Smallwood was indeed the first to use the phrase. Others picked it up over the next year or two, and eventually the phrase became shorthand for escapes from slavery, especially those with outside help. But what is especially notable about this discovery is that in the nearly two centuries since, the Underground Railroad has been celebrated in books and movies, taught in schools, and become part of the folklore of many old houses and churches. That’s certainly in part because it gives Americans a kinder, gentler way of talking about slavery—one in which white people are not exclusively villains. So it is striking to discover that at its origin the phrase underground railroad was a way of mocking and lambasting the white slaveholders and the slave-catchers, including the police, who served them. The term began as a “lash,” in Smallwood’s ironic language, that he used on the white supporters of slavery.
3. Most Americans have little understanding of the domestic slave trade, its nature or its scale.
When I say “domestic slave trade,” you probably think about auction blocks, and people being sold from farm to farm. In fact, the domestic slave trade was a major American enterprise that in the 50 years before the Civil War forced about one million people from the Upper South and border states to the Deep South, often separating children from parents and husbands from wives in the process, in most cases forever. It was one of the biggest forced migrations in world history, and for decades after the Civil War, Black families would place ads in newspapers searching for loved ones lost to the slave trade.
“The domestic slave trade was a major American enterprise that in the 50 years before the Civil War forced about one million people from the Upper South and border states to the Deep South.”
The domestic trade took off after the African slave trade was banned by Congress at the beginning of 1808. There was a huge demand for labor on the cotton plantations and sugar plantations in the Deep South, while there was a labor surplus in the mid-Atlantic, as tobacco farming declined. Slave traders like Hope Slatter, who is the villain of my book, made fortunes as middlemen buying people in the Upper South and delivering them to the Deep South.
Some slave traders marched people south for hundreds of miles chained together in what were called “coffles,” lines of men shackled together, followed by women and children usually unchained. But Slatter, like many other traders, shipped by sea—he accumulated people in his private “slave jail” at Baltimore’s harbor, and when he had a shipload, he sent them south by ship to New Orleans, where his brother oversaw what they called their “showroom,” where the enslaved were put on display and sold into the factory farms producing cotton and sugar.
4. The underground railroad was in large part a response to the domestic slave trade—people ran north to avoid being sold south.
People enslaved in the Upper South, including the mid-Atlantic, were faced with two opposite possibilities: they could choose the terrifying risk of trying to flee north, or they could remain in slavery and know that on any day, without warning, they could be sold south.
Thomas Smallwood understood this existential dilemma very well. He wrote that many of the people who came to him for help escaping north did so because they feared they were in imminent danger of being sold south. They may have heard a rumor to that effect; maybe they found out their enslaver was short of cash; or perhaps their slaveholder was on his deathbed or had just died, making the sale of the enslaved likely. The enslaver might also have simply come out and openly threatened them with a sale; “I’m going to put you in my pocket!” was the way slaveholders often worded it.
“Racism infected even the most fervent white opponents of slavery.”
The Underground Railroad and the domestic slave trade were deeply entangled. If a person got up the nerve to run for the Pennsylvania line and got caught, as happened frequently, the standard response from the enslaver was to sell them to a slave trader. They therefore faced the very fate that they were trying to escape. In Baltimore City Jail, there were always prisoners on what was called the “runaway docket,” and the runaway docket was a lucrative source for Hope Slatter’s business. Slaveholders who decided they could no longer trust their enslaved workers not to try to run again would simply send a note to Slatter at his Inner Harbor office. His men would then stop by the city jail to collect the inmates for shipment to New Orleans.
5. The power and tenacity of white supremacy and privilege play out throughout the story of three characters, Thomas Smallwood, his white sidekick Charles Torrey, and their mortal enemy, the slave trader Hope Slatter.
Smallwood was a shrewd observer of what would later be called racism, and he understood from experience that free Blacks like him were unable to exercise anything like full citizenship. There were many laws passed by Maryland and applied in DC to restrict the activities of free African Americans, from requiring that they notify the authorities before traveling out of state to requiring that all Black people, enslaved or free, obey a 10 p.m. curfew on penalty of jail, fines or whipping.
Racism infected even the most fervent white opponents of slavery. A particularly painful discovery in researching my story was that Charles Torrey never publicly acknowledged Smallwood’s central role in the escapes they helped organize—and which Smallwood continued on his own for more than a year after Torrey left Washington. Torrey actually took credit for Smallwood’s achievements, and Torrey was the subject of two biographies, one published just after his death and another in recent years. Smallwood, by contrast, has been largely left out of historians’ accounts of abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. He is even missing from books devoted to Black abolitionism.
And while it’s a footnote to my story, the slave trader Hope Slatter had a son and namesake, Hope Slatter Jr., who was convicted of murdering a man in Washington in the 1870s. But his family bribed the prosecutor to get him a new trial, and eventually, he won a presidential pardon. Astonishingly, some years after his murder conviction and the bribery episode, Slatter Jr. became police chief of Mobile, Alabama. One can only imagine what a Black man who committed murder in the 1870s and then tried to bribe his way out of prison might have faced. That detail has stuck with me as an especially stark example of the racist culture that we struggle with to this day.
To listen to the audio version read by author Scott Shane, download the Next Big Idea App today: